Is Congress catastrophically broken, or is it doing exactly what it was designed to do?

Summary:What if this is a condition Adams and Jefferson coded for, and what if we're now running an error handling routine built into America's operating system?

Okay folks. Settle down. Let me set the stage for this discussion before you all drape yourselves in partisan rhetoric.

As we all know, the U.S. government is closed for business . Shutdown. Shuttered. Furloughed. Offline. We all also generally blame a dysfunctional Congress and an ineffective President for the current state of affairs.

I've been asking -- and I'm sure many of you have as well -- whether this means that our government has reached the point where it simply can't function. Is our current system of government, with two ideologically opposed parties, incapable of providing basic governance services?

My initial knee-jerk answer is "yes". Of course our system is broken. Republicans are unstable and Democrats are useless. Politicians as a species are a waste of flesh. We should throw the bums out (all of them) and start over with a new crop, on the completely implausible assumption that the new group will be a little less fundamentalist and a little more functional.

But what if... what if the dysfunction we're now experiencing at the hands of our elected officials was exactly what the founding fathers designed into the DNA of the nation?

What if this is what is supposed to happen?

Now, once again, take a deep breath. I'm not asking this about our current set of issues. I'm not discussing the rightness or wrongness of extending the debt ceiling or the goodness or badness of Obamacare. I'm asking the question from an academic, political science perspective.

What if this is a condition Adams and Jefferson coded for, and what if we're now running an error handling routine built into America's operating system?

America's governance model didn't start off exactly as it is today. First, from about 1776 to about 1789, the country was still being formed. It was in beta. It wasn't until 1789 that the Constitution was ratified.

That gave us the Supreme Court, which convened for the first time in 1790.

Another interesting difference between then and now is that back then, the Vice President was expected to be the person who came in second in the Electoral College voting. So we would have had Bush and Gore, Obama and McCain, and so forth.

This broke down quickly. In 1796, John Adams came in first and Thomas Jefferson came in second. Already, they were from different parties and squabbling began almost immediately. This system really broke down in 1800, when the various players found it almost impossible to tell who won, the whole thing had to go before Congress, and it took Congress 36 ballots to decide on Jefferson as the winner.

That brought us to the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804, which made it law that the Electoral College chooses both a President and a Vice President. Interestingly, to this day, pres and veep don't have to be from the same party, but that's how they run, and so that's how we roll.

All that brings us back to our currently dysfunctional, government-shutting-down Congress. Broken or executing to design?

What do you think? More on the next page...

Topics: Government : US, Government


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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